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NGOs welcome EU’s vow not to push Africa into EPAs

Marc Maes (with megaphone) at one of the anti-EPA-actions in the European quarter in Brussels (Photo: Gilles)

InterPress Service | 9 October 2009

NGOs Welcome EU’s Vow Not to Push Africa into EPAs

By Isolda Agazzi

GENEVA, Oct 9 (IPS) — Non-governmental organisations have expressed their satisfaction at the European Commission’s declaration that it would not put "undue pressure" on African and other countries to conclude the controversial trade deals called economic partnership agreements (EPAs).

"The Commission continues to seek tailor-made solutions for all countries within a regional EPA in order to secure their duty-free, quota-free access to the EU and provide an improved framework for their economic development. It considers that it is up to the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) partners themselves to decide which type of trade-related rules they want to negotiate at this stage and to what extent."

This statement by the European Commission (EC), released on Oct 1, sounds like a victory for the Stop EPA Campaign which has been running for years now.

On Sep 27, the seventh anniversary of the EPA talks, more than 80 organisations from 30 countries called for a fundamental change in the course of the ongoing EPA negotiations between the European Union and the ACP countries.

"We are very satisfied that the campaign has been able to convince many people that the EPAs don’t lead to development and that the ACP countries have to be given time," Marc Maes from 11.11.11, a coalition of Belgian non-governmental organisations (NGOs), told IPS in an interview.

"In 2002, everybody believed the development rhetoric of the EC but more and more people have become sceptical and today the EC seems to be finally agreeing not to put pressure on the ACP states and to respect their political choices. But we have to be careful because rhetoric and practice are often very different."

The EPAs are meant to replace the preferential unilateral market access historically accorded the ACP states under successive Lomé Conventions. The EU’s reasoning is that the Lomé regime is incompatible with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

The 2000 Cotonou agreement laid the groundwork and the EPAs talks, run on a regional basis, were supposed to be concluded by the end of 2007.

But today only one region out of six — the Caribbean — has signed a comprehensive EPA with the EU. Other countries have only accepted individual interim agreements and only on the liberalisation of trade in goods.

According to Maes, when the negotiations started, "the EC came with a mandate that went far beyond the Cotonou agreement and WTO requirements to include services, investment, government procurement, competition law, trade facilitation, intellectual property rights and data protection."

Investment, competition and government procurement, also known as the "Singapore issues", were thrown out of the WTO Doha Development Round in July 2004 due to the fierce opposition of developing countries.

"The EC pressure on the ACP countries comes down to stalking," argued Maes. "We ask the EC not to pressurise these countries to negotiate reciprocal agreements and not to push them to negotiate the ‘Singapore’ and other non-goods issues. More than half of the ACP countries are LDCs (least developed countries) and in the WTO no reciprocity is required from them."

But, rebutted John Clarke, deputy head of the delegation of the European Commission in Geneva, "the EC and the ACP countries decided to go further than the WTO because it is a better choice.

"The Caribbean states, whose comparative advantage lies in services such as tourism and financial services, were very keen to have an agreement that included services and investment. Other ACP regions are not so keen and it is their choice but we think it is a pity because services are important."

In West Africa, only Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana have initialled an interim agreement and only on agricultural and industrial goods. After this, other countries in the sub-region decided to negotiate a regional agreement on goods as well.

"But the EC asks for an 80 percent cut on tariffs over a maximum period of 15 years," adds Anne-Catherine Claude from ActionAid. "Yet, West African countries are ready to liberalise only 60 percent of their products over a transitional period of 25 to 30 years. They want to exclude 40 percent of their sensitive products in the name of food sovereignty."

ActionAid is an organisation working globally to fight poverty.

In June, the EC agreed to sign a regional agreement with West Africa by October on goods only, with a "rendezvous clause" stipulating that negotiations would continue next year on the other issues.

"But the negotiations two weeks ago in Brussels made clear that there will be no regional goods agreement in October but maybe only by the end of the year, depending on whether the EC is ready to accept a 62 percent tariff cut, the last compromise West African countries are prepared to make," continued Maes.

"And there is a big discussion on what the "rendezvous clause" will look like," he added.

In all, 13 out of the 16 West African countries are LDCs and already enjoy duty-free and quota-free market access for all their exports to the EU under the "Everything but Arms" regime. So why enter into an EPA with the European Commission?

"This is a very good question to which I still cannot find an answer," a diplomat from the sub-region told IPS. "The official position is to go in the same direction as Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, but I don’t think it is viable and I am not the only one. There is no logic in that.

"Instead of aligning the LDCs to the three other countries (Nigeria was asked to sign an interim EPA but refused), the latter should have benefited from the same flexibility as the LDCs to accelerate the process of regional integration."

For this negotiator, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of these issues, "the EU is trying to impose its will. These agreements don’t promote development but market access for the strongest. Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Ghana don’t have the same weight as the EU, even with an asymmetric liberalisation. And even a 25-year transition period will not be enough!"

He fumed: "They are fooling us. They ‘consider’ us equals but we are not on a level playing field. There are multinationals on the one hand and, on the other, a private sector that doesn’t even know what is happening. It is re-colonisation, even worse than the bloody one of the past century.

"The economic crisis has hit developing countries more than the others. Why don’t they take this into consideration?" he added.

"It is true that LDCs will not get additional market access through the EPAs," admitted Clarke. "This is why some of them have chosen not to sign the EPA. But others have chosen to sign it because they believe that the longer term benefits are greater, notably through the liberalisation of services.

"Some sectors in ACP countries wish to have access to the EC market in services, like nurses or professionals. Also, EPAs are mainly a development cooperation instrument at the regional level."

"If countries don’t want an EPA on the basis of the Cotonou agreement the EC should ensure that they are not worse off and offer them alternative agreements", David Hachfeld of Oxfam International told IPS. Oxfam International works to bring about change by fighting poverty and injustice.

On alternative could be the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) offered by the EU to non-LDC countries that grants them preferential market access for 66 percent of their products.

Another option is the GSP Plus scheme that gives them duty-free and quota-free market access for 88 percent of their products, provided they have ratified the relevant human rights and sustainable development conventions.

The latter regime, however, excludes sugar, bananas, flowers, tuna, rum, beef, and cocoa which are vital Caribbean exports.

This fact explains why these countries had to accept an EPA, which leads Hachfeld to argue that, "the EU could enhance its GSP regime by including the excluded products. Such an improved preference system may offer a better alternative than an EPA under the current terms".

But, said Clarke, "EPAs give more preference to the ACP countries than the GSP system. But Nigeria — which has decided not to sign an EPA because it exports mostly oil — will continue benefiting from GSP."